Thursday, April 9, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 38 (for Holy Thursday, April 9)

We are nearing the completion of this 40 days of embracing uncertainty... these 40 days of Lent.  Hasn't it seemed like forever?  I know, right?  Here we are for one of the most important moments of Lent - Holy Thursday (or some like to call it Maundy Thursday - Maundy means a ceremony of washing the feet of the poor, especially commemorating Jesus' washing of His disciples' feet on Maundy Thursday).  It's an interesting term that isn't used all that often - I actually prefer Holy Thursday because the actions and words of what Jesus did and said speak to His holiness.  Our attempts to model them are also attempts to be holy.

I am a bit apprehensive about this day because we are live streaming the Holy Thursday service from the sanctuary at First UMC in Worthington.  The live stream isn't the part that I am a bit anxious about. I'm concerned about the Lord's Supper part, because even though we've tried to prepare people to be ready for it in their own homes, Holy Communion has always been done in community with certain persons presiding over the sacrament.  Those certain persons are usually ordained or specially trained persons who have been made aware of the meaning of Holy Communion.  They have been granted the authority to lead and serve Holy Communion in the church setting.  

The question is: does the same authority work as it's conveyed over the internet?  What actually happens to the bread and wine in each person's home or office as they gather for this special service tonight?

Let's talk about that - our United Methodist Bishop Bruce Ough has given each church permission to perform Communion online.  Here is his response to the questions I posed above:
Online Communion
Question: Can communion be consecrated online?
Answer: Yes. Bishop Ough grants permission for pastors to do online communion, which typically consists of clergy offering the words of consecration remotely, and people using elements in their homes to take communion (here is a sample liturgy for online communion).  
That said, he strongly encourages clergy to be intentional about how they do this and to do it well by explaining or using scripture to interpret the meaning of communion and using the words of institution. 

in some ways, it actually seems natural that persons, families and friends would gather in their homes to celebrate Holy Communion.  It does seem like a natural extension of what Jesus and His disciples did on that night so long ago.  They gathered in a room with a table.  Jesus washed the feet of each person there, performing the actions of a servant.  Then He took the staples of bread and wine and connected them forever to his saving actions on Good Friday.  The body was broken, much like Jesus' body would be broken.  The blood was poured out, much like Jesus' blood was poured out as He was crucified.  So to remember this sacrament in our homes makes sense because of the relational nature of it.  

It reminds us of what Jesus did for us.

So as we gather, the words might be a little different, but the intention will be the same... to remember Jesus and what He has done for us.  May this time be a blessing to us and to our families as we remember our Lord and Savior.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 37 (for Wednesday, April 8)

I was doing the dishes the other night.  Nancy will usually make supper and I will usually clean up after we've eaten.  It's taken a number of years for me to be trained to help out like that.  Actually, I have helped out a lot, but secretly never really enjoyed it (don't tell!).  Now, I take a bit of pride in making sure I leave it nice and clean for the next day.  How's that for vanity?

Anyway, one of the things I've discovered in washing dishes is that a person needs to be careful about putting their hands into the water without knowing what is in there.  I usually take particular note of the things that are sharp - things that can do harm to my delicate fingers.  It has happened - on occasion - when I've cut a finger with a knife, or a sharp edge on a utensil or on the edge of an opened tin can (the worst).  I try to pay attention because there is nothing more annoying than slicing a cut into your finger and trying to stop the bleeding.  

That happened the other night.  I'm not even certain I know what I cut my finger on, but there is the paper cut as proof (and here's a hint that doesn't cost you anything - if you are trying to keep your hands clean by using hand sanitizer, stay away from the area where you have a paper cut - man, does that sting!).

Today's devotion talks about a dynamic in the passion narrative that cuts like a knife: the betrayal of Judas.  Judas' actions against Jesus slices though the community that Jesus had invited to walk together.  He gave Jesus up.  Rather than try and speculate on his rationale (ultimately, who can really know?), I'd rather focus on the interesting piece of the story that we sometimes miss: Did someone have to give up Jesus and betray Him in order for Jesus to go to the cross for the sins of humankind?  Could there have been another way?  The short answer to that is perhaps there might have been another way, but ultimately, someone needed to do it.  Judas fulfilled that role by selling the knowledge of Jesus' whereabouts for thirty pieces of silver.  

John's report of this interchange that Jesus had with Judas is more interesting than Matthew and Mark.  Read all three of them here to see the difference.  All three name Judas as the one who makes plans to betray Jesus, but only John's Gospel tells us that it was Judas who made a big deal over the use of oil to anoint Jesus.  Here is what was reported:
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?  It was worth a year’s wages.”  He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
John's Gospel alone gives us Judas' motive: he was greedy.  He was the keeper of the money bag and used to skim off the fund for himself.  It does seem obvious that he was concerned for spending money on wasting oil when it could have been used for food for the poor.  yet, there is no indication that Judas was all that concerned for the poor.  Had he been, why not turn the thirty pieces of silver over to the poor people?  No doubt they could have used it.  Instead he threw it away.  Greed turned to betrayal turned to remorse turned to despair. 

I don't believe Judas had a choice.  He was doomed.  He betrayed Jesus - yes, it needed to be done bu someone and that someone was Judas.   It really doesn't matter that much because Jesus glorified God and gave us the best gift ever - eternal life.  

That is the gift that cuts through death like a knife!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 36 (for Tuesday, April 7)

The beginning part of the devotional series "Embracing the Uncertain" really started with a connection of what was happening in the world at that time.  It was the last week of February.  The coronavirus pandemic was in the earlier stages in the United States.  Everyone was moving freely about the country.  Schools were preparing for spring break.  The financial picture of the nation was in good shape.  Churches were starting their 40 days of Lent, looking forward to that glorious Easter Sunday celebration. 

Almost overnight life changed.  An authentic fear and uncertainty has since gripped the nation.  Reports of the progress of the virus has permeated daily conversation.  Those news reports have been focused solely on how America and the world are fighting against this devastating illness.  Our personal lives have been thrust into a strange, new era.  We've been at home with our families, not encouraged to venture out to where others are - to maintain a safe distance.  Many are able to work from home, getting their work done via computer or cell phone.  

Our school student's lives have changed dramatically - spring events have been postponed or cancelled.  School has moved to online based learning.  Our seniors will have memories of their final year of high school (and college) being altered from their hopes and dreams.  Our churches have scrambled to offer live stream worship, connecting through virtual and video chat rooms and calling those who may be at risk to see if there is anything that they need.

If there were any days that we could embrace as being uncertain, these days are it.

It took me a while to get to this point: we absolutely needed a devotion like Embracing the Uncertainto help us see more clearly what God has in mind for us when we come across uncertain days.  Today's devotion, Day 36, brings us closer to the end of Holy Week - Holy Thursday and Good Friday - moments which were fraught with uncertainty for Jesus and His disciples.  Jesus is prepared for the ordeal which lies just ahead of Him, but He takes a rare moment to offer a lament for the people He loves so dearly.  They just don't get Him or His message.

The author of the devotion asks a very important question... 
"If God is 1) all loving and 2) all powerful, then 3) why are there suffering and evil in the world?"
The answer to this question is one of the greatest mysteries we will ever come across.  I do believe a part of that answer is found in the delicate balance of God's love and power stacked against the free will He has given us as humans.  We have the ability to make choices.  We can decide outcomes.  We can change the world one way or another.  In making those choices, this all loving and all powerful God has given us every piece of information that we need to make a good choice.  He has made promises that ought to be considered when making any decision.  

God has done everything He can to give us the knowledge that we need to make those decisions so that we may live with honor and integrity according to His Word.

It's really up to us.  In these uncertain days, our choices can make all the difference.  Hopefully, we will choose to trust, to listen, and to follow.

Monday, April 6, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 35 (for Monday, April 6)

To "Stay at Home" or not to "Stay at Home" - that is the question.  Ever since Minnesota State Governor Walz announced the "Stay at Home" order, many persons have done exactly that - stayed home.  Others have ventured out, whether properly because of their job status qualifies as essential or because they are in need of the bare necessities of life or because they have cabin fever and just need to get out of the house.  I understand that there is a section of that order that says you need to get out of the house for leisure time and we can see that in the community of the nicer days.  People are out walking with their families, with their dogs (interesting... I never see them walking with their cats), or pushing the infant strollers to get the kids some fresh air. 

I want to believe that obedience to the Governor's order is the norm for most people.  Obedience is a common denominator for peace in the midst of chaos.  Jesus tells three parables that speak to the issue of obedience to God's pathway.  From Matthew 21:28-22:14, three stories point out the importance of being obedient to God.  They are the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants, and the parable of the wedding banquet.  Each story is a bit different than the other, but the primary focus is clear: we can try to live life on our own terms, but God won't have it.  We must be obedient to His way.

Here is why I think that is so hard for us - and when I say us, let me change that to me.  I don't want to impose my shortcomings upon anyone.  I will own my personal stuff here.  It's hard for me because I have a free will that often wants to do what I want to do.  For example, if I deem it necessary that I need to go to the grocery store for something that is not necessary for living, then I am violating the order or at least the intention of the order that Governor Walz gave us.  I might experience a fleeting moment of joy depending upon what I purchased, but it won't last.  In fact, it may inflict some damages upon others if I'm not being obedient - I may not even be aware that I'm doing it.  

I need to be mindful of my own disobedience.  Like I said, I will own that.  Most times I do fairly well at being aware of the moments when my desire leads me to want to go off the grid.  Most times, I can pause and decide to go another route - or not go that route at any rate.  

In these days, our self discipline of staying at home means a great deal to slowing the advance of this virus.  Our self discipline of staying at home with our obedience of heart and mind also means a great deal to the advance of our spiritual growth.  

There's nothing wrong with "staying home"... 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 34 (for Saturday, April 4)

In July of this year, I will have been in the ministry for 30 years.  That seems like a long time.  Three decades ago my family and I left our hometown and forged out to where God had set before us.  I can't say enough about my family's support all this time.  I know there were tough times.  It couldn't have been the easiest thing, being in a family of a United Methodist pastor.  But Nancy, Erik, Erin, and LIz walked with me every step of the way.  Their loving support and unwavering devotion were so important to me.  

Sounds like I am making some kind of retirement speech.  Relax.  Not just yet.  

True, my family has been supportive, but so have the churches that I have been blessed to be in ministry with throughout those years.  Each congregation helped me grow even further in my faith.  In each community I served I met wonderful people who taught me their faith and values.  I've learned from my clergy colleagues and my seminary and doctorate instructors.  I've been places like Israel (twice) where I've learned that I still have so much to learn.  For the past seven years, the people of Emmanuel Church, First Church and Adrian Church have also walked with me and helped me to grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  

Yet, in all of this growth, I have never perceived my faith to be strong enough to move a mountain and throw it into the sea.  The interchange between Jesus and his disciples causes me to wonder about that statement.  Does it mean that I am faithless?  Do I still have more to learn?  More to grow?  How do I interpret this section of Matthew's gospel, after nearly thirty years of learning, growing, and serving?

It's important to remember this story comes right after the cleansing of the temple.  Jesus was upset over the practices being employed by the religious leadership.  On his way back to where they were staying, his encounter with the unfruitful fig tree seems to be an example of how faith and fruitfulness go together.  The religious authorities were missing the point.  Their efforts were just as empty as the fruitless fig tree.  

I have no aspirations to be a dynamic super pastor or anything like that.  But that doesn't mean I don't want to be effective.  I do - I do want to be able to point to the One who makes a difference in our lives and hope that others will be motivated to increase their understanding of what that means for each one of them.  I could care less about any personal agenda.  I only want to serve the Lord in what and where he has called me to do that.  Truly, it has been God's leading and amazing grace that has given me the foundational support for anything that I have done in ministry.  Certainly I have made mistakes along the way - are you kiddin' me?  Of course I have not been perfect.  Many of you know that already.

But for as long as I can, with God's guiding and loving hand, I will do my level best but for God's love.  Perhaps one day, I might realize that the mountains are barriers and obstacles we experience will be leveled and flattened because we believe.  Because we have faith.  Perhaps one day, I will understand that is what Jesus was talking about with his disciples.

Does that work for you?

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 33 (for Friday, April 3)

I can't help but reflect upon what worship will be like during this upcoming week.  Normally, this is the most important worship week of the entire year.  It starts with Palm Sunday, moves through Holy Thursday and Good Friday and ends (or begins) with Easter Sunday.  It can be a very moving time for the follower of Jesus.  We experience the euphoria around the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the roller coaster of emotions begins.  Holy Week will do that for you.  

But in these pandemic times, what might we expect our worship experience to be like?  Some churches are thinking about doing a drive in worship service on Easter Sunday.  It doesn't sound like a bad idea - have people drive up in their cars, pipe the music in let everyone sing Easter songs and the like.  All from your motor vehicle.  I don't believe that idea would work at First, Emmanuel or Adrian because we don't have a parking lot.  People would be scattered up and down the street.  It might be a tough thing to pull off.  

Others are thinking about what they might do to make their recorded message or live stream service to be more special.  I'm not certain what that might mean.  We are limited with respect to providing special effects and the like (it's important to remember that our video production budget is the same as when we started this live stream worship - zero dollars!)  

Maybe the point is this: we don't need to be entertained when we gather to worship - whether we congregate in our homes, our churches (eventually) or out in God's creation.  Perhaps that was the issue for Jesus' anger in the temple.  It seemed as through the money-changers and the people were not plugged in to the reason for the temple's existence: to glorify God.  It wasn't to purchase animal sacrifices at over-inflated prices so the vendors could profit at the expense of the people.  It wasn't a place where people's primary focus was on making sure they were seen at the temple.  It was simply a place to come and offer heartfelt praise to God.

It isn't going to make any difference where you are on Palm Sunday or any day this week.  It only matters what is in your heart.  Friends, this is still a very important time of year for worship.  But, frankly speaking, our true worship isn't really found in the live stream message or drive up piped in music or even in gimmicky entertaining videos.  It will always be what is found in our heart, no matter where we are.  

A heart that was meant to glorify and praise God.  Period.

Friday, April 3, 2020

40 Days of Embracing Uncertainty - Day 32 (for Thursday, April 2)

There isn’t any possible way that the author of this devotional book that we have been reading for the past month could have foreseen the changes our nation has seen.  The author speaks about Palm Sunday and the pageantry in our church settings.  There is praise and rejoicing as we shout our “Hosannas” and wave our palm branches in our sanctuaries.  

But as we all know, not this year.  Not this Palm Sunday.  I think the challenge we face, however, is every bit before us as it was before the people who cheered Jesus’ entry into the city.

Here’s why I say that: we are looking for deliverance from this potentially deadly virus.  We might be unsure of exactly how that is supposed to happen, but we know a few things about it.  We know that if we stay at home, it will slow the spread of the virus down.  We are being told that some kind of vaccine for the virus is 18 months or so away. 

We cannot wait that long to be saved.  As a result, we have to make decisions and choices on how we live today in order to receive that deliverance we are desperately seeking.  We would love nothing better than to return to normal living.

This is not unlike the situation for the people who waved the palms on the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a colt.  They were not really certain how Jesus was going to save them, but they knew he had the power to do so – they had seen it.  He had shown them miracles of healing, raising persons from the dead, healing the blind and the lame.  They heard stories of his mastery over the creation as he walked on water, multiplied a small amount of food to feed a host of many, and turned water into wine. 

The people sensed he had the power of God behind him.  They were anxious for him to save them from the Roman oppression, which would allow them to return to normal living.

The author asks us what risks are we willing to take for the benefit of others?  Our response to that question in today’s chaotic environment is related to our very physical survival.  We already know that Jesus answered the question of our spiritual survival.  Hopefully, our actions are centered upon staying safe and secure from the spread of this virus, but also taking a few moments to draw closer to God. 

Stay the course.  It’s the only way to relieve our anxiousness and provide peace for these difficult days.